Two years. A thousand emails. Dozens of letters. Days hunched over a keyboard, putting together a book about a school. Editing submissions – some illegible, some unintelligible, some beautiful diamonds – from past students and teachers; tapping out every letter, removing endless capitalisation of Supposedly Important Words, putting paragraph breaks in pages of never-ending text. Going through a million arch folders in a crypt-like archive room watched in eerie silence by a mute ex-department store dummy standing inside a dusty glass display cabinet, dressed in a 1940s school uniform and topped with a straw sun hat to shade the dim half-light of a solitary naked bulb. The uniformed dummy is supposed to awaken warm nostalgia in visitors; but it manages only to look like a cadaver, or a mannequin in a police missing persons investigation. Shiver.
Distant laughter and the thump of ball games at a distance, and then a bell leading to a mid-afternoon silence broken by the rattly keyboard, one of those older ones with keys that travel further and squeak. Or maybe I just hit them too hard.
Then there were the telephone calls. Old students from decades past, ringing up and rambling, words and sentences in a torrent; the years falling over each other to get out. Put it in writing, please, I ask. They swear on their life to do so. They want to be in the book. I never hear from them again.
I conducted only one personal interview, with someone who was housebound - not surprisingly, since the lady was past 100.
I visited her late one morning in winter. She lives in a vast rambling Federation house on a corner block in a wide street in a leafy suburb. I parked in the side street, went through the gate and up to the huge return porch, pulled the bell in the massive front door. No reply. I rang again, could hear it inside, like a far away church bell.
I walked along the porch and around the return to another door. No bell. I knocked. No reply. I pulled out my phone and rang her number. She picked up immediately. "Come through the side gate and around the back," she barked, as if I should have known all along.
I opened the side gate and went along a path through a garden that looked like the front cover of a 1954 Home Beautiful. I went in the back door and through a linoed verandah where a refrigerator was humming, and on into a sunroom. She was propped up on enough cushions to stock Ikea, in a lounge chair about the size of a small car. She looked comfortable. There was a carefully wrapped cut lunch on a tray near her left hand, and the telephone near her right. She had a book on her lap and a stack of them on a coffee table. She was all set for the day. She was large and had the skin of an elephant and all her own teeth, which you could see when she laughed, and she had a permanently loud voice, so she could hear what she said.
"Sit down," she commanded, pointing to a chair directly opposite hers. "I can’t talk if you’re standing up." I sat down. "You don’t have to interview me," she went on. "I had my daughter write it all down." Probably the same daughter who had made the cut lunch. She threw an envelope at me accurately, like a courier in a hurry, and told me to open it up and read it on the spot to "see if it was suitable for publication." Like I was going to censor her memoirs.
When I left, I closed and locked the back door and walked back through the 1950s garden and locked the side gate on my way out into the street. She would have been three years old at the outbreak of the First World War, a walking, talking toddler in full voice. Time plays tricks. Just not sure what the trick was.